May 13, 2010

The Ist List

Posted in Profile Writing at 10:22 pm by shhville

Class: Profile Writing

Instructors: Karen Weintraub & Billy Baker

The Ist List: Atheist, Feminist, Astrophysicist

-Elke Blackstone

In his spare, sunny office on the fourth floor of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), Jonathan McDowell is explaining his relationship to the media.

“They like me because if they keep me talking long enough, I’ll make a fool of myself and they can quote me,” he jokes.

He may, in part, be referring to a quote he gave a London newspaper, The Daily Mail, in February of 2008, resulting in the front page headline, “Bush branded ‘cowboy of space’ after decision to shoot down malfunctioning satellite,” but his lack of self-censorship is not the main reason that he is a draw for journalists reporting on outer space. McDowell, a Smithsonian astrophysicist working on NASA’s Chandra x-ray telescope, has a way of drilling down through the technical minutiae of a complicated topic and illuminating the nugget of truth at the center. He explains astronomical phenomena in a way that paints a picture and tells a story that non-scientists can understand.

Take for instance, his description of Chandra – a space-based x-ray telescope sitting on a satellite 60 thousand miles above the Earth, or a quarter of the way to the moon.

“Hubble’s easy to explain because Hubble looks at the ordinary light that you and I see,” he says, referring to NASA’s more famous optical telescope, “But it turns out that if you only look at stuff in ordinary light, you miss a lot of what’s going on in the universe. When you have a star shining away, like the sun, most of what it puts out is visible light, which is one of the reasons our eyes have evolved to see that. But when things go very badly wrong, like a star explodes, or a black hole is swallowing stuff, in those sort of extreme conditions, the kind of light that tends to be made is x-rays. The way I think about it is that Hubble sees the 90% of the universe that’s just humming along normally, while Chandra sees the 10% of the universe that’s really fucked up. And since a lot of the objects in the universe go through an evolutionary phase like that, you’re seeing the 10% of the time in something’s life where something really dramatic is happening.”

McDowell knows a thing or two about evolutionary phases, dramatic moments, and things being really fucked up – not only in outer space, but in his own life. He started out as a young space buff and became a rocket scientist. Along the way, the qualities that made him a good scientist – high-level cognitive reasoning coupled with a deep curiosity and sense of wonder about the universe – led him to a second profession, of sorts; that of a social and political activist.


Born in Georgia in 1960, while his father was on a year-long sabbatical at Georgia Tech, McDowell and his younger brother were raised in England by their parents, Brenda and M.R. Coulter McDowell. His mother was a French teacher, his father a physicist, and they both turned to atheism shortly after Jonathan’s birth (“My theory is that I was the final proof that God didn’t exist.”). Growing up in an atheist family, McDowell went his own way for a time, remaining agnostic until early adolescence, when a burgeoning obsession with the space program helped him come to some conclusions. According to him, information on the space program was hard to come by in England at that time, so McDowell would go to the local library to pore through publications like Flight International Magazine and Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft, carefully copying out lists of launched satellites and learning as much as he could about space. Then one day, what he was reading in an astronomy book pulled some important threads together.

“The description of how things in the universe had evolved in this logical way from natural processes – the life cycle of stars and the life cycle of planets and how it all came together, just clicked with me,” he says. “It was almost an audible [snaps fingers and makes a popping sound with his mouth]. Ohhhhh, this feels right. Guy with beard sitting on a cloud going ‘shazam’ feels wrong. This makes sense to me. It’s consistent with the world around me, as I understand it, it’s consistent with what I know of science. So from that point on, I never had any doubt in my mind. Clearly the universe evolves in a natural way without supernatural intervention and the rest is just fairy stories.”


When not speaking of inherently serious matters, McDowell punctuates nearly every sentence with a smiling upward inflection and an enthusiastic bob of the torso, which jostles his thick, shoulder-length, silver and auburn hair. This physical tic makes conversing with him feel something like a game in which your opponent is bent on giving you clues and letting you win. He has none of the droning intonation of the scientist talking down to the acolyte. McDowell, by his very nature, is encouraging.

In the remodeled kitchen of his 1900 square foot loft in an industrial area of Somerville, McDowell is bobbing and smiling as he makes green tea and philosophizes. It’s a warm day. The windows are open. Occasionally a Green Line train rumbles past, but he barely notices.

“My connection to astronomy is very tightly coupled to philosophy and to my view of the universe, both logical and emotional,” he says. “My sense of wonder, my core construction of what life is, seeing humans in the context of this atheistic, natural universe and us as natural beings within it. It is my responsibility to construct meaning, to decide what meaning I want to give my life because I don’t believe that there is an externally imposed meaning. To that extent, going into cosmology and working on my PhD on the early universe, came at least partly out of that desire to explore philosophically the meaning of life as well as a scientific fascination with the black holes, big bang, whizzo stuff.”

McDowell’s home library is not like yours. Roughly a third of his loft is taken up by tall bookshelves – actual stacks that you can get turned around and lost in. There is a ladder for reaching the top volumes. It turns out that the list of satellite launches that McDowell copied out of the back of Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft when he was eleven, was the seed of something much larger. Through constant, diligent effort McDowell has grown the list into what it is today: the journal of record for space launches – the most complete list in the world. But the library is not all astronomy. There is also a large section devoted to science fiction – what McDowell refers to as “Twinkie brain food.” There is a lamp in there and a reading chair.

The other dominant feature of McDowell’s home is what he refers to as his “command center.” McDowell’s home computer is not like yours. He has three computers and two laptops linked up together with four monitors stacked on top of each other. The set up looks like something you could land planes with. At work, McDowell manages a team of astrophysicists working on the Chandra project. He spends most of his time in meetings or checking in with people, directing workflow. If he wants to do science, he comes home.

Here at the Brickbottom Lofts, most of the tenants are artists. The building is reminiscent of a dormitory in that the residents decorate their front doors and adjacent hallway walls with their own original works. McDowell is not an artist. His front door is plastered with glorious, spiraling pictures of outer space.


While working on his PhD at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge (England), McDowell had another revelation that shifted and clarified his worldview. He noticed that the female scientists he was friends with at school seemed to be lacking the confidence of their male peers. Many of them seemed to feel like imposters – as though they could be caught at any moment impersonating people with actual science and math abilities. He theorized that this false internal image arose from growing up in a culture in which women were told from a very early age that science and math simply weren’t for girls – that those were skills and professions better left to men who were inherently good at them. At the same time he noticed that most of the women he knew had distorted body images, believing themselves to be aesthetically inferior to some perceived norm. And then one day it clicked. These two problems, he realized, were the same problem – the symptoms of a culturally systemic oppression of women.

“Suddenly the idea of the patriarchy made sense to me,” he says, “And I got pissed.”

In 1988, McDowell moved to Boston to do postdoctoral research on quasars at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. At that time, the anti-abortion movement in the United States was swelling ranks. Operation Rescue was staging huge protests at abortion clinics all over the U.S., including Boston. They were enormous, theatrical affairs in which hundreds of anti-abortion protesters would descend on clinics, blocking the entrances with their bodies, screaming at and threatening patients trying to enter. McDowell felt compelled to throw himself into the fray.

“It was just this confluence of everything I didn’t like,” he says. “They were attacking women’s rights, which I’d been sensitized to, they were also the same people who believe the universe had only begun a few thousand years ago which sort of pushes all my astronomer buttons, right? So I just had this gut feeling of, ‘Not in my town, kid.’ And I got involved in going out in the streets to protest against that.”

That was when McDowell began his work as a volunteer escort for clinics that provide abortion services – work he continues to this day, though under less chaotic conditions. In the late ’80’s and early ’90’s, pro-choice activism was something akin to a military operation. They were trained in techniques like creating a corridor of human bodies leading to clinic entrances. The corridor consisted of an offset, double-layer of people, so that the protesters couldn’t crawl through their legs. They had reconnaissance teams waiting at area clinics to alert a phone tree if Operation Rescue protesters descended. They had a spy network watching the churches from which the protesters would pour into the streets at agreed-upon times and swarm to the chosen clinic of the day. It was a heady time. It was dangerous work.

Things began to change in 1992, when the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) act passed. The FACE act did not prohibit people from protesting peacefully outside of abortion clinics, but it did make it illegal for protesters to threaten, intimidate, or physically prevent people from getting in the front door. As more and more anti-abortion activists were sentenced to two-year prison terms for violating the new law, many  protesters seemed to decide that the potential cost of their activism was too high. Their numbers dwindled. And then the backlash came.


On the morning of December 30th, 1994, McDowell was doing research at the Harvard Geology Library. Unusually, there was a radio on at the circulation desk, but he was absorbed in his reading and tuned it out. He pricked up his ears, though, when he heard the students at the desk discussing abortion. Curious, he approached them, and that was when he learned that a man named John C. Salvi had, just half an hour earlier, gone on a shooting rampage at two abortion clinics in Brookline. Two people were dead, five were wounded, and there was a massive manhunt underway.

McDowell immediately headed to Preterm Health Services – one of the clinics that had come under attack and where he had been scheduled to work as an escort the following morning. There he was confronted with bullet holes, caution tape, and the news that a woman he knew, 38-year-old Leanne Nichols, was dead. Salvi had shot her ten times as she sat at her desk.

Later that afternoon, McDowell stood on the sidewalk in Coolidge Corner, openly crying as he handed out hastily-made fliers for a candlelight vigil that night. Several hundred mourners attended the vigil. They sang, cried, embraced, reassured each other that they were all in one piece, though they felt shattered into thousands.

The next morning, with Salvi still on the loose, McDowell rose early and headed out to Repro Associates in Coolidge Corner – the only area clinic open that day. As he pulled on his “Volunteer Escort” jacket, he felt like he was pulling on a giant bull’s eye. The protesters at the clinic were defiant and unapologetic. McDowell, the lone escort for part of the morning until a few others arrived, kept his eyes on the rooftops, watching for snipers. He was very afraid, but felt compelled to stand his ground.

“I couldn’t stay home because…I just couldn’t,” he says, unsmiling. “I needed to act out my grief, I guess, and go ‘fuck you’ to them. It was a very intense time. It was New Year’s Eve and a couple of days later I had to go to a conference in [Washington] D.C. in astronomy land and I was so disassociated. It was a really bad time. Leanne was the first person I’d ever known who was murdered. I’d been thinking about moving on to other issues at that point, but I felt like, I have to stay with this. I’m not going to be scared away.”


In the warmer months, McDowell sets aside roughly half an hour each day to chat with the ten undergraduate students who are chosen every summer to intern at the CfA. They are his advisees and part of his role is to make sure they’re holding up under the academic pressure and staying on track. Because he is who he is, McDowell is concerned not only with the progress and well-being of each individual student, but with the diversity of the group as a whole. According to him, there should be a good mix of students from both larger, more competitive schools and smaller colleges with no name recognition, as well as an equal number of men and women.

“We’re very proud that we’ve been fifty-fifty male-female throughout the history of the program,” he says, with a happy torso-bob. “That required, I think, a little bit of affirmative action in the early days, but not anymore. The undergraduate women are really strong now, which is a really pleasant change to see.”

McDowell has long been preoccupied with promoting diversity wherever possible, and specifically within his own field, but he’s not the guy who sits on committees. He’s the guy who makes a point of booking female scientists to speak at the CfA’s summer colloquia series. He’s the guy who asks conference organizers, “Why, out of the twenty speakers here, is only one of them female?” He’s the guy who makes sure that his female advisees understand that he expects them to do well, that he has total confidence in them and that living up to high expectations is within their grasp. And he’s the guy who goes to parties.

Ten years ago, two of McDowell’s colleagues started hosting dance parties at the annual meetings of the American Astronomical Society. Originally, he says, they were small shindigs for which McDowell and his friends would hand out invitations to people who seemed more on the fun side, less on the awkward side.

“It was very in-crowd and elitist of us, but fuck it, it worked. It was at least semi-consciously about building a community and making sure that these conferences were places where the people with social skills would go home and think, ‘Oh that was fun, I think I’ll go again.’ Now we rent a club and there will be, like, 300 astronomers dancing and having a good time. It just shifts the atmosphere to something that people with lives want to be a part of. That’s not explicitly a feminist thing, and yet,” he laughs, “It’s not uncorrelated, in fact.”

McDowell notes, however, that less progress has been made with minorities in the sciences. According to him, until recently there has been no core population of minorities to push for change from within, as there were, in his experience, with female astronomers. The problem starts early on, he says. From young ages, disadvantaged minorities are not learning the core subjects that will enable them, later, to specialize in scientific fields.

“It goes back to junior high and high school and until we can open that pipeline up, we won’t have the seed population to get a significant number of [minority] students in. That’s the big hole in our community right now where we’re not reflecting America, and that’s never a good thing.”


For the past several years, McDowell has been working with two groups: the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the Secure World Foundation (SWF). The UCS is primarily concerned with mitigating the weaponization of space, while the SWF focuses on establishing agreements about the “rules of the road,” such as what defines a hostile act in space and guidelines for retiring defunct satellites. Part of why his involvement with these groups is satisfying work, he says, is that as hard-headed as governments and politicians can be, they’re much easier to find common ground with than anti-abortion activists. The major issues involved are physics and money – nothing that comes close to a referendum on anyone’s moral construct. He describes his role on these projects simply as “the guy who knows every satellite that’s ever been launched.”

McDowell acknowledges that he is not “a part of the herd,” but he feels that astronomers tend to stray from the herd in the same general direction. People who are drawn to science, he says, are those who have a skeptical, non-mystical view of the world. But those who are drawn to astronomy, in particular, are those whose skepticism is coupled with what he calls “a romantic streak.” Asked to drill down through it all to the nugget of truth that makes him who he is, McDowell offers a typically illuminating distillation of the structure of right and wrong by which he evaluates the world.

“How do you define good?” he asks. “I post-rationalize my definition of good to be maximizing the potential of the maximum number of people – of sentient beings – in the universe. Quality of life means having choices, being able to explore what you can do, and the more people who have the more freedom to do that, that’s what a good society feels like.”

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